A curious common wisdom seems to have taken hold of the Democratic Party which insists that the President’s base can—and must—be won back. Trump voters, folks insist, are not really racist, or sexist, but rather misunderstood and dislocated by “changes.”
There are some notable exceptions, such as the veritable breaths of fresh air that are New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Boston’s own Ayanna Pressley, but even progressive stalwart and presidential hopeful Kamala Harris appears to have quaffed this particular Kool-Aid.
“Over the last 10 years in our country, at least, we’ve seen an incredible amount of change,” she said in an NPR interview after a query about Trump’s victory. “People are reading about ‘the browning of America,’ and ‘the immigrants are coming,’ and we had Barack Obama as president, and then we had a woman running as president, and we had a Jew running for president, and gay people can marry and ‘oh my God, oh my God.’”
Others, such as perennial Presidential wannabe Joe Biden, have offered similar sentiments as they position themselves as having enough of the right stuff and the common touch to successfully challenge Trump in 2020.
But is it “understandable” that people feel “displaced?” What makes them wonder about “where they fit in,” or about “their relevance?” What makes them ponder whether they are “obsolete?” Why are they “resentful of this change?” What does it say about a group of people if they are angered by inclusion and diversity, or by movements toward more racial justice? Why are those changes not greeted with celebration?
This is a convenient story. It allows us to pretend that all of this finger pointing and synagogue shooting and shouting— “build the wall, crime will fall!”—is just befuddlement. And it allows politicians to insist that deep and abiding racial and gender animus is not driving Trump and his supporters. (Research shows it is.) Trump supporters are not really hateful or discriminatory, this story tells us—and thus, they can and should be able to be brought back into an electoral fold by a leader who understands their angst.
But this story is also both incorrect and dangerous. Unless we reckon with the depth and staying power of white supremacy and toxic masculinity, we will never be able to do anything more than defend what little inclusion and democracy we have.
The ideologies of racial and gender superiority may now have chipped from decades of activism, education and legislation, but they are still alive and well in the hearts and minds of many of our neighbors. How else to honestly explain the precipitous rise in bias-related hate crimes now that bigotry has been legitimized from the highest office? How else to explain active and explicit efforts to disenfranchise voters of color?
It may be troubling to imagine that a portion of our compatriots have beliefs and values so at odds with those supposedly at the heart of this nation—tolerance, inclusion, democracy and equality come to mind—but, in truth, this has always been the case, and that means we must learn how to acknowledge it. Vast numbers of Americans believed slavery a legitimate and necessary social institution. Women were deemed unable to even exercise the franchise of the vote, and they were beaten in the streets for demanding it.
Hillary was pilloried for deeming a portion of Trump’s base “a basket of deplorables,” beyond the pale of civilized disagreement. But was she wrong?
None of us are blank books in which history writes a story. The narrative of rapid change provoking innocent (white) bystanders to lash out blindly is simultaneously patronizing and illogical. It presumes those individuals experience these changes with no beliefs and values of their own, no way to make sense of them other than fear and hatred—yet not all of us react to change the same way.
If we all really valued inclusion and equity, the election of an African-American President and the prospect of electing a female president would be greeted with celebration, not epithets. Instead, these occasions were met with anger and violence. These reactions are only possible if and when people believe that this is a zero-sum game; that those jobs or positions of power or rights were always only theirs to begin with; and, perhaps most dangerously, that those clamoring for equality and inclusion are less worthy, perhaps even less fully human, than they are.
Biden even acknowledged as much in a September speech to the Human Rights Campaign, where he railed against the “virulent people” who “remain determined to undermine and roll back the progress.” Walking back from this accurate assessment may seem politically savvy, but it is ethically dangerous. Any glance at the horrors of our last century should give pause to indulging in fantasies where bigotry is understood as innocent dislocation.
To not reckon with the misogyny that propelled Trump and ratified Kavanaugh is to close our collective eyes to the persistent view of women as objects to be used, not equal subjects and citizens. When 60 percent of Trump supporters hope not to see a woman president in their lifetime, and an avowed white supremacist such as Iowa’s Steve King is handily reelected to Congress, there is only so much wool we can pull over our own eyes. When Bernie Sanders explains the defeat of black candidates Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams by referencing the “discomfort” of white voters—or, in later clarifications, the racism of their electoral opponents—he masks the reality of the deep and ongoing active racism of a small but significant portion of the American electorate.
Politicians and pundits routinely normalize and explain away resentment and anger at social change in the hopes of winning back seemingly wayward voters. But perhaps tying our future to those who espouse our values is a better way to ensure that we have one at all.
Opinions expressed here are the author’s own. Ms. is published by Feminist Majority Foundation, a 501(c)3 organization, and does not endorse candidates.
Suzanna Danuta Walters is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program at Northeastern University and the Editor of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society.
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